Kubo and the Two Strings – The Folktale Made Visual

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Every so often, usually when busied with some sort of mundane task, the wife and I will wander the vast labyrinths of video streaming services in search of some gem we’ve previously neglected. I’d seen Kubo and the Two Strings before, but Nicole hasn’t, and if there’s one thing that makes tedium easier to endure without sacrificing quality, it’s a movie you’ve seen and enjoyed.

Kubo revels in its personality. The animation style is stop-motion, but with a level of detail and a distinct Japanese style that separate it from more familiar fare. This, by itself, would be cause for curiosity, if not much else. Instead, the visual feast comes spiced with a story that makes for pleasant popcorn fare. We’re not talking Kafka levels of intrigue, here, but Kubo hits its emotional notes and throws its characters into a number of fun sequences. Giant skeletons, paper bird swarms, and sea monsters all make appearances.

What, I think, I like most about this movie is its ability to hold fast to its plot without asking questions, without adding in complications, and, most of all, without spoiling the entertainment on offer by taking a harder look at the brutality of the story. People die in this one, kids. Good guys, bad guys. Often in medieval ways.

Still, the carnage is earned. Unlike some children’s tales where the “evil” only plays at the name, in Kubo the designation is warranted. The people chasing after the titular kid won’t hesitate to slice him and all his friends up, or, if it’s easier, to corrupt him against everything his friends stand for. Point being – it’s good vs. evil and the evil earns its keep.

So yes, if you’re believing this movie looks too kid-friendly for you, don’t make the mistake. It’s a magical adventure and a visual treat. You won’t have to think too hard to enjoy it either, because Kubo doesn’t cloud its intentions in layers of obfuscating plot.

Which, I suppose, is a lesson – once you know what you want to do with your story, do that. Don’t get distracted. Don’t get fancy. Find your story and tell it.

A Monster Calls – How to have children handle adult issues without losing childhood

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There’s a perception, particularly with books like Harry Potter or Pixar films, that they effectively treat their young characters the same as adults. In other words, the children aren’t shielded from complicated and difficult problems just because they’re not eighteen years or older. This, of course, is a closer mirror to reality, in which random circumstance doesn’t particularly care what age you are. Of course, the risk you run when you put children in adult situations is that it’s too easy to have them react not as a child would, but instead as an adult. A person with plenty of coping mechanisms, with decades of experience and, for better or for worse, a world-view.

A Monster’s Call is a movie (based on a novel) that attempts to cover this treacherous territory with a young boy – I didn’t get the age, but 12-14 years old? – whose dealing with his mother’s illness. The story, and the reason for the monster’s existence, revolve around the boy eventually coming to terms with that situation, among others, through a child’s methods. Namely, imagination. Connor doesn’t have experience with this. He doesn’t have solutions, and he doesn’t have the sort of vices that adults might use to cope with things beyond their control (drugs, alcohol, spur-of-the-moment month-long trips to island jungles to ‘reflect’).

The neat twist in this story is that the monster doesn’t indulge Connor. There is no escape here. The monster has no interest in helping Connor run from his problems, but rather attempts to help the boy find, if not answers, then at least an understanding of the situation. By the end, we don’t receive a magical fairy tale. We don’t get problems wrapped up in a box and presented with a bow. Connor hasn’t turned into a model human. What he has learned, however, is to live in his life rather than run from it.

It would be easy for the lessons here to come across heavy-handed. No, Connor, you can’t run. Be a man and deal with your issues. Fight the bullies. Stop whining. The sort of stuff we’ve seen plenty of times before and that would seem to rely on a character transformation un-earned by the kid we see at the start of such a story. A Monster Calls doesn’t presume to argue that Connor has some mighty valor hidden deep inside. He’s not a super hero at the beginning, and he’s not at the end. Not every change he makes is positive.

Now, what I’m taking from this as a writer is twofold:

  1. Child characters can handle adult scenarios, yes, but they should do so in a way that is in their worldview. They shouldn’t be mature, they shouldn’t be reasonable (for the most part), and they should respond with the naivety that makes childhood such an appealing topic in the first place. Whether that’s through imaginary friends, constant questioning of situations adults would take as normal, or other options, a child sees the world through a different lens as an adult, and the story should use that perspective.
  2. Don’t be afraid of putting your childhood characters in tough emotional situations. See how they handle it, and explore those opportunities. The way an 8 year-old handles the loss (or gain) of someone meaningful is going to be very different from a 45 year-old, or a teenager. As these situations occur, don’t run towards the easiest possible explanation. We’ve seen countless stories of kids lashing out when in strange scenarios – all too few really get in that child’s head to ask why, to attempt to discover just what is tales are being told in their minds to deal with the world they’re living in.

Of course, I’d recommend watching the movie as well, though you may want to have some tissues handy. A Monster Calls is streaming now on HBO.

And if you need another reason – Liam Neeson voices a giant tree creature who says more than “I am Groot”. It’s excellent.

Dunkirk and a razor-sharp story

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Dunkirk, a rifle shot of a movie, takes a list of things it would like to show, feelings it wants to impart, and then slams them at you with unrelenting efficiency. There is very little fat on these bones.

While I enjoyed the film, especially in the all-consuming IMAX theater where I saw it (and I’d recommend a similar environment – in traditional Christopher Nolan fashion, there’s enough playing with time and sequence that you’re liable to get confused if you glance at your phone or computer every few minutes), Dunkirk is almost more fascinating as an exercise in story construction. And, really, in how to keep the focus on the central conflict to your tale. Below are a few, spoiler-free, observations that I plan to take into my own writing that I picked up from Dunkirk:

  1. Every character ought to have a purpose – This is one that I’ve fallen afoul of before. Namely, creating characters that come into a story and either fall off the page later or achieve no specific objective. In Dunkirk, if someone is a focus of screen time for any length, they have a reason for being there that affects the story or the other protagonists to some degree. I’m not talking extras here, I’m talking named characters. They should make an impact. If you’re naming the shopkeeper, for example, then that shopkeeper better do more than just give the main character their change and be done with it. If something needs to happen that isn’t being done by the villain or the heroes, and you’re thinking a named character has to be involved, then make them meaningful. Give them something to be. Or a death worth dying for.
  2. Don’t let the central conflict disappear – Sideplots, particularly in longer works like novels, will happen. They’re a great way to flesh out characters and keep readers from being exhausted by an ever-escalating set of main story stakes. However, the central issue in your story, the thing that’s driving your characters deep down, shouldn’t vanish for too long. Think about it this way – you’re not watching Sharknado for the love interests. It’s all well and good if sparks fly, but we’re watching the movie for the tornado full of sharks, if we’re watching it at all (which, let’s hope not). Dunkirk, by virtue of its setting, has its central conflict in view at all times. It overshadows all of the characters for every minute of the film, and we never forget the stakes.
  3. Coincidence is good, until it’s bad – Dunkirk, along with many other movies and books, does occasionally use coincidence to get characters into trouble. Which is fine! Grand! Your hero should bet on the one horse that’s sick to win the race. A car should run a red light and hit your hero as they’re riding their bike. However, in every coincidence, Dunkirk‘s heroes respond with action. They save themselves, or at least make such an effort of it that we don’t mind the nudging of the gods in their favor. Your heroes should always make their own luck to get out of a problem, and lose it to get into another one.
  4. If you have a device, use it consistently – Dunkirk, and this may be more Christopher Nolan’s directing and the script’s writing, uses small amounts of dialogue. It relies on the actors and their faces, along with the surrounding sounds, to give the audience an idea of the tense terror that is being under constant attack. The movie rarely deviates from this setup. It’s not as though the first half finishes and everyone suddenly becomes blabbermouths. Dunkirk‘s style is consistent throughout. If you’re using a narrative device, like consistent switching of P.O.V.s or large amounts of dialogue to move scenes forward, be consistent with it. Don’t veer in and out of different styles in the same story, or your audience will notice. And if they notice your work, then they’re not paying attention to your writing.
  5. If it doesn’t need showing, don’t show it – For a movie about one army shoving another off a beach, you’d expect to see a little of both. Instead, Dunkirk barely shows anything of the Nazis. Some airplanes, but otherwise the German army is a largely invisible menace. Rather than reduce apprehension, the fact that you’re never quite sure where the enemy is, where they might show up, is a huge source of tension in the film. Just like the soldiers trapped on the beach, you don’t know where the next attack is coming from. In your story, consider whether characters or events need to be shown, or can be relegated to an ominous background. You could write a series of scenes showing tanks chewing through towns, or you could have your characters notice the quiet coming over their home. The increasingly panicked newspaper headlines. The rising cost of simple goods, and perhaps some unexplained disappearances. Compare which set is more effective at setting the tone you’re trying to achieve.

Anyway, after all that, I’d say that Dunkirk is a fun ride. Similar to, in my opinion, Gravity in that it’s an experience worth having once but not one I’ll be seeking out for repeat viewings. If you get a chance to see it in theaters, particularly IMAX, take it.


Five Fun Things About Spiderman: Homecoming Did (From a writer’s point of view)

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Without belaboring the quality of the flick (it was fun! it was good! It won’t redefine how you feel about comic book movies, but you’ll smile almost the entire movie), I want to take a quick look at a few things I noticed after seeing Spiderman: Homecoming last night that stuck out as different from the usual comic book and/or high school movie fare that were nice deviations from standard tropes:

  1. A high school that isn’t exclusively clique-oriented – Yeah, there’s some divisions there, but the biggest “jock” in the movie, Flash, is also a member of the Academic Decathlon. “Nerds” aren’t getting beaten up in the hallways. Peter and his friends actually seem to enjoy their hobbies and clubs in the school, rather than going to them in a sort of shame. They revel in their hobbies, and nobody cares. There’s a particularly nice setup early in the film where Peter’s friend Ned comes behind Peter as Peter’s opening his with a toy, the sort of thing that in other movies would trigger a back-and-forth glance and a moan about how uncool they were. That’s not what happens here. While high schools are different, they’re not all Lord of the Flies scenarios where the geeks live in fear under a tyrant army of jocks and cheerleaders.
  2. A villain with a moral code that isn’t trying to end the world – Without going too far into specifics, the primary antagonist (really, all of them) in the movie aren’t doing evil things to be evil. They’re doing it because they have families to support and are shut out of normal opportunities by, in this case, deals among powerful companies and organizations that keep out the little guys. There’s no real baddies in this one that want to see the world burn, and it’s refreshing to see a writer put as much energy into a plausible villain (even one with a mechanized flight suit) as they do into the splashy fight scenes.
  3. Battles that are about more than beating each other up – While it can be fun to watch two out-sized foes duke it out while destroying cities, a battle that sticks with you has to have some other stakes beyond just defeating the enemy. Every fight in this movie was about more than beating the other guy – the villains almost never wanted to “kill” Spiderman, they all had ancillary goals. Spiderman, likewise, wasn’t trying to beat the crap out of the enemy. As most conflicts in life really are, these fights were more two groups with conflicting objectives that were in the way. It wasn’t about the punches, it was where they wanted to go. Also, to that end, none of the fights were overlong. You never grew tired of the action because the movie wasn’t interested in extended beat-em-up scenes.
  4. Giving the characters a life outside of the objective – This is a tricky one to pull off, because you don’t want to bore the audience with details that don’t matter to the plot, but you do want them to believe your heroes are real. Spiderman spends a lot of this movie without the suit on, engaging in the sorts of things an actual 15 year-old would do. That these scenes are suffused with humor and conflict and still advance the plot help immensely in keeping them interesting. You’ll have as much fun watching Peter deal with getting ready for a dance (the titular Homecoming at his school) as you will watching him suit up for the next fight. By the end of the movie, I still felt Spiderman was a plausible high school student, something that most of these movies disregard after the opening half hour to service the world-destroying conflict.
  5. Work the slow burn bits – It’s easy to get so consumed by the big twist in your story that you ignore opportunities for little gems that you can toss throughout your work. Spiderman is littered with these callbacks and tiny side-plots. If you don’t catch some of them, it won’t matter to the overall story, but including a few treats for attentive watchers/readers can be fun for the writer and everyone else. I don’t think every single moment needs to tie into something larger, but give your characters chances to grow in ways beyond taking down the big baddie or solving the crime. Most of us have lives with more than one thing going on at a time, with numerous small things coming and going throughout even as we focus on a big goal (the job, the kid, the novel). Give those little bits some air and you’ll find yourself with richer characters, and a richer story for it.

A Night at the Movies with Logan and La La Land

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Why So Sad?

Holy hell, people. In case you couldn’t tell, I want to talk quickly about these two movies. There will be spoilersI’m typing that before I write the rest of the article, so there may not actually be spoilers, but I’m gonna cover myself.

Anyway, let’s hit these in the order that I saw them, cause I’m the one writing this thing and this is not a democracy, dammit.

La La Land

I went out and bought the sheet music to this movie, for piano, immediately after seeing it. Couldn’t help it. My piano is so out of tune that it sounds like I’m stabbing a parrot with a kazoo every time I play a note, but I wanted to give these songs a whirl. Yes, I’ll get it tuned eventually. That’s not the point.

These songs are great! They’re alternately entertaining, heartfelt, overly dramatic, and full of the kind of random piano swerves that make for fun playing. Also, as a writer, the whole ‘Audition’ song was basically one long ensemble for me. Here’s to the fools who dream! That’s right!

Also, the Epilogue sequence was great. Every movie should have a seven or eight minute alternate ending that said hey, we know you probably didn’t like how the movie turned out, so here’s what you really wanted in super-fast, stylized form. Yes. That is what I wanted. That is what Nicole wanted. It was wonderful. And then it smashed you back into reality.

Almost everyone that saw the film that I know badly wanted that ending changed. They couldn’t reconcile with the idea that Sebastian and Mia aren’t some perfect fairy tale couple. From a realism standpoint, the film’s outcome was probably a lot more likely. You’re probably going to lose people as you pursue your dreams, and you’ll probably find new ones that you hold onto. Life’s a bunch of changes. So on and so forth. But, dang, that could’ve been a cleaner transition.

We’re asked to assume that for five years, after Mia embarks on her amazing journey courtesy of Sebastian not being an asshole for once they never talk to each other again? In this age of constant communication, Facebook friends and whatnot, Mia never once saw Sebastian post “Hey fellow Jazz enthusiasts, come see my new joint Sebs!”? That never happened? I’m callin’ B.S. on that.

But then again, here I am writing about the movie on a blog that heretofore has been about writing stuff. So who really wins?

My guess is La La Land.


This movie is on the opposite side of sad from La La Land. It’s still sad, it’s just a different type of sad. Kinda like how dijon mustard is still mustard, but hits you in a different way. Logan doesn’t rely on your hopes and dreams, your empathetic placement of yourself in the character’s shoes to get the thrill, no, it basically says “Holy crap please let these people stop suffering wow I did not take enough meds for this”. And then when you think it might finally let you go without completely decimating what little hope remains in your soul, it takes rips that away too. With an X and a quote from a decades-old western.

The only reason any of that works, though, is because you finally get to see what happens when you take the superhero out of, well, the superhero. Logan’s stars definitely have abilities, and there’s some short bits of comic book action (lots of violence, but most of it wouldn’t be out of line for an R-rated action flick), but the movie works hard to keep you grounded in the characters. They are not the other. They are you and your dad and your grandpa taking a last road trip and you know, deep down, that this is probably the last time you’ll get to hear the two of them talking in the car together and you just want to keep that moment going for as long as you possibly can. Only, it ends. It has to. Logan ends perfectly.

I think both of these movies are worth seeing. They are like peanut butter and chili sauce. Completely incompatible with each other, but delicious in their own ways. Just, you know, be prepared to spend time after each one commiserating with your fellow distraught friends on your social media platform of choice. It’s ok. We’ll make it through this together.

Also, One Shot is up for pre-order. Comes out next week. Cool.